So, I had a complicated family life growing up. My folks divorced when I was two, my father married the woman who had lived across the street — my old neighbors became my step family. They lived for a time in rural Wayne County (near Richmond where I lived) before moving out to Colorado. I guess I was probably about six years old when they moved to Colorado. I guess my sisters and I went out to what we called “the farm” every other weekend, but I don’t really know because it was so long ago. After the Colorado move, we saw them for several weeks during the summer and I recall going out there one Christmas. I believe the last summer, Colorado visit would have been in 1980 when I was eight. Then there were some child support issues, and we didn’t go out there anymore. Then my father and step-mother got divorced, so I never saw that set of step-siblings again.
I’m prompted to write this for a few reasons, chief among them is that I learned that my step-brother (or ex-step-brother, I suppose), Mike Masson, died. I have to specify a last name because due to my mother getting remarried once and my father getting remarried three times, I have three step-brothers named Rick and, up until yesterday, two step-brothers named Mike. All told, I have eight brothers and eight sisters. I couldn’t tell you all of their names on a bet. Despite having met them all at one time or another, some of the names from my father’s third and fourth marriages escape me. I was friends with Mike and one of my ex-step-sisters on Facebook which is how I learned of his death. I’m not close enough with her to feel comfortable asking about the details of his death, so I’m stalking the comment thread to find out the details.
[Fun side story about Facebook and this slice of my family: It was the period between signing the purchase agreement and closing on my house in West Lafayette. My step-sister also happened to be moving and posted something about moving. I chimed in on that thread saying, “I’m moving too.” Then, oddly, the woman I was buying from jumps into the thread and says, “I think you’re buying the house from me.” I responded, “I think that’s right. How do you know [step-sister]?” Turns out it was my step-sister’s cousin. I had actually met her in 1980 on the drive to Colorado when they lived in St. Louis and we stopped there to visit on the way. We went up in the St. Louis Arch together!]
The other, less pressing, reasons for writing this blog post are: a) Despite having made a few aborted efforts at keeping a diary or journal, I never keep up with them and never know where to find the book or whatever I was using when it occurs to me to record personal thoughts. This blog is the closest thing I have. So occasionally I write one of these things that the public doesn’t necessarily need to know about or have any particular reason to care about. I thank you for letting me indulge myself; and b) Mike’s death has me dredging up some long-forgotten memories of that time in my life. As I get older, those memories get more distant, and I’m afraid that if I don’t write them down, they’ll be lost entirely. I know it’s bad form to turn someone else’s death into commentary about yourself, but I didn’t really know him that well, so here we are.
My memories from “the Farm” are really just disjointed scenes:
- The other kids were carrying me as a “patient” on a stretcher that was really just a blanket. They dropped me and I smashed my knee into the stair rail bannister which gave me a scar on my knee which has faded but which I can still find if I really look.
- There was a boulder that we just called “the Big Rock” that we went and climbed and jumped off of.
- There was a creek with a shady spot that widened out into a sand bar.
- There seemed to be a lot of daddy longlegs spiders.
- The house had a big porch and there was an afternoon where we jumped from the rail out into the yard, yelling “naked ladies!” for some reason.
- This may not have been the Farm and could have been later, but I remember spending the night outside with Mike, and we’d get all excited when we saw a satellite. They were so rare back in those days. We’d shine a flashlight up into the sky and talk about how the light wouldn’t stop until it hit a star.
From a little later on when they moved to a town in western Colorado (Austin, CO, not that far from Delta):
- Mike was born on July 7, 1970. The bank in town gave him seven silver dollars on account of him turning seven on 7/7/77.
- You could sometimes hear sonic booms as jets broke the sound barrier.
- As the youngest family members, we were put in the far back of the station wagon on a drive from Indiana to Colorado. We figured out that cards would fit under the door as we drove — so we entertained ourselves by watching Uno cards fluttering off into the Kansas countryside. However, we got busted when one of the adults opened the door at a McDonald’s stop and the cards that hadn’t escaped were piled up under the back car door.
- Mike got a radio that only seemed to get two radio stations out in that part of the country. That summer, Billy Joel’s “My Life” and “Le Freak” by Chic seemed to be getting a lot of airplay. Must’ve been 1978.
- I got the flu one summer and felt horrible. I can think of only one other time when I may have been sicker. They gave me Sprite or Seven-Up to settle my stomach.
- To get to the house, you had to go up what seemed like the time to be a gigantic hill. It got really hot and it was really dry out there. So, as I was sitting down resting on my journey up the hill, I had my very first encounter with red ants. They hurt.
- There was a general store at the bottom of the hill. The daughter of the owner was a girl named Michelle who was about my age. She was my first crush. I want to say I kissed her, but maybe I only wanted to.
- I helped Mike raise pigs for 4H or some such. It may have been unrelated, but we ended up going to a rodeo for what seems like a couple of days. I don’t know where Mike was — maybe participating in an event? — but I hung out with some other kid who taught me that, even if you had no money, you could get mustard packets for free. So, me and a random kid in western Colorado hung out at a rodeo sucking down a bunch of mustard packets.
- In the car going to the airport for my sisters and I to go back to Indiana, Mike and I were stuck in the back as per usual and were having a great time repeatedly and loudly singing the theme song to the “Godzilla” cartoon. We took great delight belting out the high notes when the song got to the words “. . . and Godzuki.” I’m not positive if this would have been the summer of 1980 (Wikipedia says the cartoon had two seasons, released in the fall of 1978 and of 1979), but if it was, it’s entirely possible that this was the last time I saw Mike.
- My step-mother told me she was going to buy me some winter gloves. I was really looking forward to them, and we’d picked out a pair. She was giving me a lecture on how I had to take care of them, and I was agreeing to do so. Then, for some reason, she changed her mind and decided not to get them. I never got any gloves.
- In the summer of 1980, my father and step-mother were moving from a house in Austin to a house in Crawford. There was work to be done, bailing hay out at the new property, I believe. Mike and I weren’t much help with that and, instead, spent the afternoon intertubing down the creek that was on or near the property.
- There were a couple of Korean kids who lived down the road. They taught us the proper way to throw a karate punch which we thought was pretty cool. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure it had nothing to do with karate and was a horrible way to throw a punch.
- We had a Japanese exchange student named Chizaru visiting one year. On the way to pick her up, Mike told me not to mention Iwo Jima or Hiroshima. I had no idea what those were at the time, so no problem keeping mum.
- We had some pretty sweet Battlestar Galactica toys. He had the Cylon, and I had the Colonial Warrior.
- Maybe the first time I was in Colorado, there was a drought. I could have misunderstood, but my sense was that the adults were mad about water restrictions because some of the water was diverted to Denver. (It was, I now realize, the aggrieved tone rural folks often take about city dwellers.) At some point, I flushed the toilet and said, “there goes the water to Denver!” That got big laughs.
- Mike had a toy shotgun that you could stuff dirt into the barrel and, when you fired it, it looked like smoke coming out. Later on, he had a pellet gun we liked to shoot and a bow and arrow that we shot into a target on some hay stacks. The trouble was that we’d often miss and the arrows would get lost in the hay pile.
Just as a general matter, I remember being a sensitive kid and feeling somewhat intimidated by and lesser than Mike. He was bigger and louder than me. Beyond that, the family seemed to have an outdoorsy, active orientation and activities along those lines didn’t come naturally. I was more of a smart, studious rule follower — those qualities were not well-regarded in any demonstrable kind of way. I wasn’t athletically horrible or opposed to the outdoors, but that generally wasn’t my wheelhouse. It wasn’t until I learned to be funny that I got much in the way of positive reinforcement.
At the time, everything seemed normal. I was little and didn’t know any better. In retrospect, things seem a bit chaotic, and there is a distinct lack of parental involvement in most of my memories of those days. I think the lack of structure contributed to my overall anxiousness. Anyway, that’s my trip down memory lane. I might add more if anything else occurs to me. R.I.P. Mike.